In many Western countries, experts are concerned about the increase in unruly behaviour among eventgoers and crowds at sporting events. While the event industry still has to recover from the enormous impact of COVID-19, crowd behaviour presents new challenges. What does this mean for the event industry and authorities?
Since the restart of events after the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be an increase in incidents due to unruly crowd behaviour in many Western countries. Both small and large incidents have occurred in various countries in which crowds behaved aggressively and did not follow instructions from the government or private security. A striking example was the gate storming of the O2 Brixton Academy in London on December 15, 2022 by an estimated 3,000 people, reportedly without tickets, at a concert by African singer Asake. Two people lost their lives. The unrest and gate storms at the Astroworld festival in Houston (T) in November 2021, which eventually killed ten people, also fit into this trend.
In many European countries, especially at football games the number of incidents has increased considerably since the restart after COVID-19. We’ve seen pitch invasions in different countries. Players have been attacked by so-called supporters. The most serious incident was in Malang (Indonesia) in October 2022, where police rigorously dealt with angry pitch invaders. 131 people eventually died when they fled the tear gas set off by the police. The Dutch Football Association imposed twice as many stadium bans as was usual in the past ten years. In Italy, 171 Juventus fans were handed stadium bans or fines for hurling racist abuse at an Inter Milan striker.
Experts worldwide wonder whether these behavioural changes follow certain patterns and how event organizers, clubs and local authorities can deal with them sensibly. It seems there are several patterns. In football, for example, experts indicate that young supporters have been less ‘educated’ during the COVID-19 years and are more detached from the social control of older supporters than before. Limited social control also seems to play a role at concerts and festivals. But there are more factors involved. For example, the British scientist Emma Parkinson recently stated in a podcast for the Event Safety Alliance that young people have become so integrated with their mobile phone that they have become highly dependent on the mobile device in communicating with others. Therefore, they’re also vulnerable if that device does not work due to data traffic failure. We seem to be increasingly self-absorbed, which can have the side effect of diminishing the sense of community or ‘Social Identification’ with the people around us. In addition, copycat behaviour can also play a role. Because how much fun is it to imitate a video from TikTok where gates are stormed at a concert or fireworks show if you get the chance
Out of practice
Eric Stuart, president of the Global Crowd Management Alliance, is concerned about this situation. “We are out of practice,” he says. The events industry is still hard at work rebuilding the quantity and quality of the staffing and materials it needs to run events safely. The combination with having to deal with new visitor behaviour makes it extra challenging. Stuart is calling on the industry to accept that we have a problem and have an honest conversation in the planning phase about things that can foreseeably go wrong. This involves two questions: 1) what should we do to prevent an incident and 2) what do we need so that our organization can respond adequately if things do go wrong? For example, has the staff received sufficient training?
Always be ready
With the challenges outlined here in mind, the event season 2023 promises to be an interesting year. It is important for event organizers and their subcontractors to have an open discussion about risks during the planning and permitting phase and to provide a realistic picture of what the safety and security organization can handle. For representatives of local councils and advisory services, it is important to keep asking questions directly, to go through realistic emergency scenarios with the event organization, and to be actively present at high-risk events. As Eric Stuart states: “Always be ready in case it does go wrong.”
Watch the interview with Eric Stuart, recorded March 9, 2023, below.